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A schematic solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy

2014/05/02 3 comments

The problem of literary style in philosophy I understand as follows. Philosophy, as an endeavor, strives for clarity of thought. Why then should philosophers write in a style that seems to sacrifice clarity and perhaps other philosophical virtues to literary virtues? No doubt it will make the philosophy more interesting to read—if, at least, it is skillfully attempted—but it does so at the price of selling out, of trading a contextually proper virtue for a contextually improper virtue. The moral: philosophers should avoid literary stylistic maneuvers except insofar as they may be attempted without damaging the work’s philosophical merits.

As someone many of whose favorite philosophers are self-consciously literary in style—I am thinking primarily of Emerson and Nietzsche, but they are not alone—this problem recurs in my thought. Even as I read Emerson with delight, I find I cannot shake the niggling worry that I am being cheated—less, perhaps, by Emerson than by myself. Here, then, is another attempt to talk this worry out of my mind. I do not hold out much hope for permanent success; maybe I may silence it for a moment at least.

Emerson draws a distinction between thought that serves knowledge and thought that knowledge serves. I will call the former “reasoning” and the latter “thought”. So Emerson distinguishes between reasoning and thought. Reasoning is part of a collective human endeavor aimed at expanding our knowledge. It aims at truth that is impersonal, that could be discovered by anyone. The products, or results, of such reasoning, immediately become public property. Anyone may use them, and thus reasoning may be progressive. Moreover, while truth has a history of discovery, it is in a certain sense ahistorical: it was there all along. What is true in Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection is true regardless of how it came to be articulated in a particular country at a particular time by a particular person in a particular social and scientific setting. What matters is the results of reasoning, not the history of how those results were achieved—this may be seen in the (blamelessly) farcical histories of science presented in science classes. It is in this sense that reasoning serves knowledge: once the knowledge is attained, the reasoning drops away. Today, the sciences provide the paradigm examples of reasoning, but much of past and contemporary philosophy also consists of reasoning in this sense. This is, I suspect, the legitimate sense in which philosophy is “continuous” with the sciences.

Thought, by contrast, if it aims at anything, aims at something rather more like mental emancipation. We are trapped by conformity: to our society, to our past actions, to our past thoughts, and so forth. One philosophical task is to overcome these traps, i.e. to emancipate ourselves, and moreover to do so in a way that also spurs others to their own emancipation. Knowledge serves thought in that particular bits of knowledge (arrived at by reasoning) may play an integral role in the process of mental emancipation. But they are not its end. I take Emerson and Nietzsche to be engaged in thought, in this sense.

At almost every point, thought contrasts with reasoning. Reasoning is impersonal, but thought is intensely personal. What traps Emerson is not what traps Nietzsche. There is no public property with which to avail oneself, no penicillin for mental unfreedom. There is only the private struggle against one’s own captors. Because of this, where reasoning may be progressive, thought cannot be. That Emerson freed himself does not mean that I may start from a state of freedom—indeed, that Emerson freed himself yesterday does not mean that he may start from a state of freedom today: one of Emerson’s recurring themes is that we are continually finding ourselves trapped anew. The struggle is perpetual. As Emerson puts it, I believe in “History” (I paraphrase): “Every mind must go anew over the entire ground.” And because of this, history matters. My struggle for mental freedom carves out a particular path that is ineluctably shaped by my history, and no other struggle can be quite like it. Nothing universal or eternal is attained. Further, the results of thought are not public, not in the same way as the results of reasoning. Where anyone may believe the results of scientific inquiry as they stand (and, more epistemically riskily, also the results of much philosophical inquiry), there is nothing in Emerson that may be believed—or, at least, nothing that should be. For that would be only so much conformity. Emerson may only be taken up by an active process of appropriation, of making Emerson one’s own, thus of distorting Emerson into the shape of the reader. Finally, I take it to be clear today that truth, i.e. the fruits of reasoning, will not “set you free”—not intrinsically. Much additional work must be done to achieve emancipation using such knowledge. That work I take to be, not more reasoning, but the work of thought. And in that sense philosophy is not continuous with the sciences.

Here then is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. When one is engaged in reasoning, and turns to present the results of that reasoning, clarity and rigor of argument are the primary virtues. To sacrifice them to literary appeal would be a sort of hypocrisy, or at least a betrayal of the project. It would be to, in a sense, privatize what should be fundamentally public, in the sense of making the results, and the reasoning that supports them, most easily publicly accessible. By contrast, when one is engaged in thought, and turns to present that thought, clarity and rigor become tools, and not always the right tools. Emerson wishes to free himself, first, and to provoke others to free themselves, second. His writing is supposed to help accomplish both of these tasks. One aspect of Emerson’s conception of mental freedom is a suspicion of overly justifying oneself, for since one justifies oneself primarily to others, such self-justification threatens to lead one into conformity. (I take this thought to lie behind Nietzsche’s conception, in Jenseits von Gut und Böse, of a “Wille zur Dummheit.”) Emerson would be a hypocrite himself, would be abandoning the aims of his thought, were he to sacrifice style to transparency.

Examples may help. One of Emerson’s literary techniques is to take an image or a concept and circle around it, constantly leaving it and returning to it, as he does, for instance, in Nature. Another is his method of reversal, in which he apparently endorses an idea, only to reverse his position later on. These techniques are no friend of transparency: they leave Emerson’s notions without any definite, final formulation, and they make it more or less impossible to ascribe to him any quite definite position. Moreover, while both the posts above look at these techniques within an essay, both may be seen occurring across Emerson’s entire oeuvre (both his published works and his journals)—such is the fate of all of his core concepts: nature, idealism, self-reliance, scholarship, poetry, partiality… But if there is one thing that can be stated with certainty about Emerson’s views, it is that if Emerson were to hitch himself to a single, definitive statement of his thought, that would be, once more, conformity and unfreedom. So Emerson must write as he does.

There is my solution to the problem of literary style in philosophy. It is necessary, where it is necessary, on pain of hypocrisy. I grant that this is as presented an unsatisfactory solution. It turns on a distinction between thought and reasoning that I have not made fully clear and moreover do not know how to make fully clear. It is a distinction, further, that, however desperately I cling to it, often seems to me something I grasp with my wishes much more than with my reason. My only apology is that I am not done thinking through this topic. The recurrence will not stop, and I must not hope for finality, but only report on a work in progress.

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[I confess this post’s debt to Lawrence Buell’s Emerson. A passage in chapter 3 on Emerson’s style gave me the idea for this post, and my distinction between thought and reasoning, though not phrased in those terms, is given expression in chapter 2 of that work. I already had some notion of the distinction, but Buell helped to sharpen it. Furthermore, it is to him that I owe the phrase “mental emancipation.” Buell also makes a useful distinction between emancipation of thought and emancipation from injustice, which, though I do not explicitly mention it above, has helped to clarify my thinking. I believe this covers my debts; I apologize to Buell for anything I may have inadvertently left out.]

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Scientific and analogical history

2013/11/09 1 comment

By what is perhaps a lucky coincidence, the human/animal seminar I am taking arrived at Nie­tzsche (from whom we are reading On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense and On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life) at the same time as I concluded Emerson’s ad­dresses and lectures—next up is his first book of essays, which begins with his essay on history. (In fact, I completed the addresses and lectures a month or so ago, but simply have not had time to push forward with the essays until now.) My intent for this post was to bolster my Emerson-Nietzsche metempsychosis hypothesis, which in fact was bolstered by reading Emerson on history shortly after reading Nietzsche on history. (Nietzsche’s essay in fact contains two references to Emerson, though not to “History”.) However, I after reading the essay, I am more interested in something that is more internal to Emerson than it is comparative. Nevertheless, I find Nietzsche at the start of this path, if only for a time. (Nietzsche citations, designated UD, are to the Cambridge edition of Untimely Meditations used in the previous post. Emerson citations, designated H, are to his Essays & Lectures, published by Library of America.)

Nietzsche distinguishes three sorts of history that may aid life: monumental, antiquarian, and critical history. Antiquarian history preserves what is old, looking on it with “love and loyalty” (UD 72). Antiquarian history functions by preserving “for those who shall come into existence after [the antiquarian historian] the conditions under which he himself came into existence – and thus he serves life” (UD 73). It is of the least interest here. Critical history serves to “break up and dissolve a part of the past” by showing it worthy of being condemned (UD 75). This is not difficult: “every past, however, is worthy to be condemned, for that is the nature of human things: human violence and weakness have always played a mighty role in them” (UD 76). This sort of history is exemplified by Nietzsche’s own genealogical work, which is nothing but a critical history of morality (and Christianity) for the sake of condemning it. Foucault’s work also falls in this category. It is a dangerous form of history. It can easily lead to a debilitating skepticism and ultimately catatonia, because it is a universal acid: every past, subjected to critical history, turns out to be worthy of condemnation. So it must be used selectively: it is a tool by which life can act to free itself from some bondage, but it should not be pursued for its own sake.

Lastly, there is monumental history. Nietzsche occasionally engages in this, but I think it is on the whole best exemplified by Emerson. Monumental history serves the “man of the present” by showing him “that the greatness that once existed was in any event once possible and may thus be possible again” (UD 69)—it shows, in short, what is possible, and fortifies him who would achieve it. Characteristic of monumental history is a sort of violence against truth: “How much of the past would have to be overlooked if it was to produce that mighty effect, how violently what is individual in it would have to be forced into a universal mould and all its sharp corners and hard outlines broken up in the interest of conformity!” (UD 69)

As I read it, Emerson’s “History” is a straightforward call for monumental history, though perhaps not of a sort identical to Nietzsche’s. Emerson insists, right from the start, on two points: (a) “There is on mind common to all individual men.” (b) Of the works of this mind history is the record” (H 237). Emerson later develops this thought when he claims that history is more or less a set of variations on a few themes: the laws of this universal mind. In this way, Emerson effects the overlooking of details Nietzsche mentions: in all of history there are but a few patterns to be isolated. All of history is to be shoved into a universal mould. (Incidentally, anyone who has experienced the way Emerson more or less indiscriminately lumps names together as exemplars of some point can attest that Emerson diligently adhered to this doctrine in his own reliance on history.)

But this reduction of history to a few laws is not to be achieved scientifically. There is purification by means of overlooking irrelevant details, but this is not to be accomplished experimentally or scientifically. Rather, it is to be accomplished analogically. “Nature is full of sublime family likeness throughout her works; and delights in startling us with resemblances in the most unexpected quarters” (H 243). The examples that immediately follow this statement make it clear that these likenesses are analogical, not causal.

Analogies, however, are easy to come by. What can lend any sort of rigor to history performed in this manner? Surely it must end up lax and undisciplined. As usual, for Emerson, the route to the universal begins by burrowing into oneself. “The fact narrated must correspond to something in me to be credible or intelligible” (H, 238). What in history cannot be corroborated by private experience is to be ignored. In this way, there is a dual movement in which private facts are generalized, and public facts privatized.

History, so achieved, is not a matter of standing on the shoulders of giants. History should show us what is possible and give us the strength to achieve it—Emerson is in this a monumental historian—but it does not cover any ground for us. “Every mind must know the whole lesson for itself,—must go over the whole ground. What it does not see, what it does not live, it will not know” (H 240). Indeed, in a way, the more history there is, the greater the mind’s task, for “We must in ourselves see the necessary reason of every fact,—see how it could and must be” (H 240).

History illuminates to us our own biography, even as our own biography orders and justifies history. History, then, can never outstrip biography. “The student is to read history actively and not passively; to esteem his own life the text, and books the commentary” (H 239)—with the result that “History becomes fluid and true, and Biography deep and sublime” (H 246). There is nothing but self-knowledge to be found in history.

Most fascinating about this last quote, to me, is the equivalence between History being “fluid” and History being “true”. Normally we think of what is stable as true, which would in this case be the stable facts of history, scientifically undertaken. But, for Emerson, what is stable and material is secondary to what is fluid and ideal, to relations. Emersonian history is true, when it is true, because it is fluid. (There is more on this in my post on the transparent eyeball passage of Nature.)

Emerson grows impatient with history undertaken scientifically: science acts then precisely as an undertaker, and history is carried out like a corpse. Emerson’s vision of history is one that is, he believes, unrealized except in the rare case: “Nay, what does history yet record of the metaphysical annals of man? What light does it shed on those mysteries which we hide under the names Death and Immortality?” (H 256). At the essay’s emotional summit, Emerson implores self-reliance over servitude to the material facts:

What is our life but an endless flight of winged facts or events! In splendid variety these changes come, all putting questions to the human spirit. Those men who cannot answer by a superior wisdom these facts or questions of time, serve them. Facts encumber them, tyrannize over them, and make the men of routine the men of sense, in whom a literal obedience to facts has extinguished every spark of that light by which man is truly man. But if the man is true to his better instincts or sentiments, and refuses the dominion of facts, as one that comes of a higher race, remains fast by the soul and sees the principle, then the facts fall aptly and supple into their places; they know their master, and the meanest of them glorifies him. (H 252)

When there is this possibility in view, who would choose slavery? “Why should we make account of time, or of magnitude, or of figure? The soul knows them not, and genius, obeying its law, knows how to play with them as a young child plays with graybeards and in churches” (H 242).

— — Interlude: My original plan for this post shows its face here: I cannot resist quoting the following passage from Nietzsche’s On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense, to be read in light of the foregoing. “That vast assembly of beams and boards to which needy man clings, thereby saving himself on his journey through life, is used by the liberated intellect as a mere climbing frame and plaything on which to perform its most reckless tricks; and when it smashes this framework, jumbles it up and ironically re-assembles it, pairing the most unlike things and dividing those things which are closest to one another, it reveals the fact that it does not require those makeshift aids of neediness, and that it is now guided, not by concepts but by intuitions.” (Page 152 in the Cambridge edition of The Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings, edited by Raymond Geuss and Ronald Speirs.) End interlude. — —

This opposition between mastery over and slavery to the facts is, I think, the core of Emerson’s essay on history—and Nietzsche’s, too. There is a needy life that clings to facts as the beams and boards of a ship, because it has no answer of its own to give them. And there is the self-reliant life that confronts these facts as material for play of the most deadly serious sort, taking those it can use, rearranging them in the most interesting and vital combinations, revealing what is fluid and eternal in nature. Incidentally, my response to those who claim that On Truth and Lying in a Nonmoral Sense is an immature essay of Nietzsche’s, full of views he thankfully overcame, is that such a view is superficial. Nietzsche there is asking the same questions about the value of truth that he asked throughout his career: just how valuable is truth for life. Like Emerson before him, he claimed truth should serve life, and not the other way around.

I want to end with what remains, for me, an aporia. Emerson supposes we encounter the universal by self-reliance. Yet, for Emerson, there is no stable self. “A man is a bundle of relations, a knot of roots, whose flower and fruitage is the world” (H 254). Relations, as we have seen, are fluid, are subject to change. Indeed, Emerson knew this as well as anyone: the self-reliant man is not necessarily consistent (recall Emerson’s account of hobgoblins), is not chained to his past. The self on which one relies is not yet accomplished when one approaches history: history indeed is a guide to one’s “unattained but attainable self” (H 239). Yet it is self-reliance that is supposed to guide the approach to history. Thus there is a Meno problem for Emerson: if the self is attained, we do not need history, but if the self is not attained, we end up slaves to historical fact, for we lack the resources to approach history. (This same problem arises for the Nietzschean imperative to become who one is.) How is this problem to be resolved? Once again, I must end:

I do not know.

An impossible argument in Nietzsche’s Untimely Meditations

I am recently coming to suspect that Nietzsche, that most naturalist of philosophers, was a vitalist. This leads him into trouble, but not the usual troubles. When I call Nie­tzsche a vitalist, I do not mean that he thought an additional, non-physical law or princi­ple was needed to account for the phenomenon of life. (Perhaps that is what his will to power is. I don’t know. In any event I am focusing on the younger Nietzsche.) Rather, I mean that he viewed life as something special, something that perhaps not all living organisms possess. [All citations will be to the Cambridge editions of Untimely Meditations, translated by R.J. Hollingdale and edited by Daniel Breazeale.]

This comes out when Nietzsche says, in On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life, that history should serve life rather than life serve history. What Nietzsche means by “life” is only a subset of what there is to living beings. Consider the following passage, in which Nietzsche asks of possessors of life (in the vitalistic sense):

What was left of them to bury! Only the dross, refuse, vanity, animality that had always weighed them down and that was now consigned to oblivion after having for long been the object of their contempt. But one thing will live, the monogram of their most essential being, a work, an act, a piece of rare enlightenment, a creation: it will live because posterity cannot do without it. (69)

Here life is not our living bodies, but our “essential being”, which may be found in a work or an act, and which remains even when our bodies are decayed. Nietzsche at one point (I haven’t been able to track it down) suggests a pruning metaphor: the great individual prunes himself, shedding that which is not life or not in service of life, preserving only what is or serves life. Life is only a small part of the living organism, if any.

It is this life that history is supposed to serve. We can well imagine utilitarianism or Christianity has been useful for the preservation of the species, yet Nietzsche could still adamantly respond: yes, but they have not served life! The same is true for history: its application could preserve the human race, perhaps, but not human life.

Nietzsche, later in the essay, gives an argument for why history must serve life—for its own sake!

As cities collapse and grow desolate when there is an earthquake and man erects his house on volcanic land only in fear and trembling and only briefly, so life itself caves in and grows weak and fearful when the concept-quake caused by science robs man of the foundation of all his rest and security, his belief in the enduring and eternal. Is life to dominate knowledge and science, or is knowledge to dominate life? Which of these two forces is the higher and more decisive? There can be no doubt: life is the higher, the dominating force, for knowledge which annihilated life would have annihilated itself with it. Knowledge presupposes life and thus has in the preservation of life the same interest as any creature has in its own continued existence. (121)

(Note: Nietzsche in the essay considers whether or not history should be a science or an art. So when Nietzsche considers science and life, history is included under science, I believe.)

There is an uncontroversial sense in which knowledge presupposes life: it requires living beings to carry it out. But what I have been suggesting is precisely that Nietzsche has been developing a sense of ‘life’ that is distinct from that of living beings: life may be found even after the death of the living being (think how often in his later philosophy Nietzsche praises the life that squanders itself—or even think of the very idea of untimeliness and posthumous birth), and the living being can exist without life, if those living parts have been pruned away, leaving only the dross and vanity.

Nietzsche’s argument turns on an equivocation: history presupposes living beings, and Nietzsche slides from this uncontroversial claim to the much more interesting view that history presupposes life. Nietzsche’s argument is impossible: his peculiar definition of ‘life’ makes it so.

I don’t wish to speculate why Nietzsche fell into this mistake. Carelessness, perhaps, or maybe it was deliberate. It is an interesting mistake, in my view, since so much of Nietzsche’s work is premised on the idea that something might be incredibly harmful to life, to health, without having the slightest negative consequences for the preservation of the species. Nietzsche confronts, again and again, the possibility and even reality of what is non-life in humans dominating what is life in them. Yet here he would rule out that possibility a priori. A defensive maneuver, perhaps? A retreat from a terrible truth he was not yet ready to face?

I do not know.

Is science rational?

2013/10/18 3 comments

The title of this post suggests a polemic of some form or another, whether in defense of or as an attack on science. The reality of this post will disappoint those feisty souls who delight in the witty barbs the polemicist uses to replace reasons, but may perhaps be of interest to those interested instead in an exploration of an intriguing historical topic. Scientific inquiry today is taken to be the pinnacle of rational thought, yet according to one established tradition of the use of the term “Reason”, contemporary scientific thought has no part in it. And this indicates that for science to reach the point where it could be seen as the paradigm of rational thought, there had to be a substantial reconsideration of what it is to be rational.

These reflections grow out of my reading for the human/animal seminar that I’ve been taking this semester. As such they reflect my limited and partial reading in the history of thought more, perhaps, than they reflect history itself. But with that caveat firmly in mind I may perhaps proceed in a free and incautious manner. I will draw particularly heavily on readings from Coleridge (discussed in my previous post), as well as J.S. Mill’s essay on Coleridge, which more or less makes the point I will be making a century and a half in advance. [Coleridge’s “Theory of Life” citations are the same as in the earlier essay. Coleridge’s “The Friend” citations are to a version of whose origin I am ignorant, though it is probably on Google Books or archive.org. Mill citations are to the pages in this PDF.]

In an earlier post on Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener”, I drew on readings from this same seminar to make the point that telling someone they cannot rise above their imagination is tantamount to calling them beastly, to reducing them to the animal. This same objection appears in Coleridge, in an argument, as usual, against materialism. The system of materialism is described, by Coleridge, as “the exclusion of all modes of existence which the theorist cannot in imagination, at least, finger and peep at!” (“Theory of Life”, 45) In this essay, Coleridge doesn’t make much of this, but in Essay V of “The Friend”, it becomes clear that this is supposed to reduce the materialist to a beast. Coleridge there defines cognitive faculties by their objects. The imagination is sensual, is concerned precisely with those objects that may be fingered and peeped at. Reason, by contrast, is concerned with the knowledge of spiritual objects: “the Universal, the Eternal, and the Necessary” and “God, the Soul, eternal Truth” (“The Friend”, 266).

From this, it is an easy deduction to conclude that Reason and materialism are incompatible. If there are no spiritual objects, there is no Reason. Materialism says there are no spiritual objects. So materialism says there is no Reason.

Where does science slot into this picture? For Coleridge it is a matter of Reason. Recall from my previous post his anti-realism about quantitative science and his realism about qualitative science. This distinction is fleshed out (though not in these terms) in “The Friend”. Coleridge makes a threefold distinction between Sense, which takes in impressions from the environment, Understanding, which organizes these impressions under concepts and rules (giving us experience), and Reason, which subsumes experience under “ABSOLUTE PRINCIPLES or necessary LAWS” (“The Friend”, 270). Mere induction on the basis of experience (which may give you quantitative, anti-realist science) is not yet reasoning. Reasoning requires the subsumption of experience under necessary laws.

Note that this changes the earlier deduction of the incompatibility of materialism and Reason. For Coleridge here is explicit: “Reason therefore, in this secondary sense, and used, not as a spiritual Organ but as a Faculty […] Reason, I say, or the scientific Faculty, is the Intellection of the possibility or essential properties of things by means of the Laws that constitute them” (“The Friend”, 270-1). So, insofar as materialism allows for a science with laws, it seems compatible with Reason. Now Coleridge thinks that Reason as a scientific faculty requires the spiritual aspect of Reason (it is, after all, a secondary aspect of Reason that is implicated in science), but if we drop this presupposition then at least this secondary sense of Reason seems compatible with materialist science.

Mill perceptively captures all of this. He characterizes the fight between the Benthamites and the Coleridgeans—Mill sees Bentham and Coleridge as the English heads of two competing tendencies—as follows: “Sensualism is the common term of abuse for the one philosophy, mysticism for the other. The one doctrine is accused of making men beasts, the other lunatics” (Mill, 405). Even more interesting, in light of the question I am raising, is what he says about the Coleridgean view of what happens to science given a materialist philosophy:

Even science, it is affirmed, loses the character of science in this view of it, and becomes empiricism; a mere enumeration and arrangement of facts, not explaining nor accounting for them: since a fact is only then accounted for, when we are made to see in it the manifestation of laws, which, as soon as they are perceived at all, are perceived to be necessary. These are the charges brought by the transcendental philosophers against the school of Locke, Hartley, and Bentham. (Mill, 407-8)

The charge, I want to say, sticks, at least to a very strong current of thought about science. (To say the charge sticks is not to accept the normative implication that this is a problem, of course.) Hume captured extremely well the difficulties with understanding experience as giving us access to necessity. We never perceive necessity, whether of a causal or law-like sort. We never see the truth of laws, but only individual phenomena that would be consistent with certain laws, did they exist. One might argue that the best explanation for why science works as well as it does is that there really are necessary laws of nature that “govern” (in a strong, causal sense) the phenomena studied by scientists. But such an inference without question goes beyond the content of the sciences themselves, and moreover seems of dubious compatibility with materialism, since such laws cannot be fingered or peeped at.

Thus I think there is a very real sense in which contemporary science has indeed rejected explanation in favor of description, has given up the search for necessary, governing laws, and has therefore given up its claim to be the product even of the secondary sense of Reason. And, as my examples adduced in the Melville post show, this conception of Reason has a long history that clearly predates the rise of modern science. For science to become the paradigm of rational thought that it is today, then, it had to throw off this history and stake out a new conception of ‘reason’ for itself.

Or so my limited grasp of history leads me to believe.